Interview: Hall of Fame Songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman on what makes a good song

Texas Born and Alabama bred but only because she was an Airforce brat.

In the interminable debate about what is or isn’t americana one thing is beyond question, and that is that a defining characteristic of americana is the quality of the songwriting.  Beth Nielsen Chapman is a songwriter whose songs have been covered by pop, rock, country, and americana artists ranging from Faith Hill, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Juice Newton, Waylon Jennings, and Bette Midler to name only a few. Her own recordings have included guest appearances by artists of the calibre of John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Kimmie Rhodes, Emmylou Harris, and the UK’s own Paul Carrack. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Beth Nielsen Chapman over Zoom to discuss her new album ‘Crazy Town’ and why she thinks she has finally managed to capture her live energy in the studio, how she still struggles to believe she is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and why she thinks Bonnie Raitt has developed into such a good songwriter. She explains how her songwriting and performing are part of a continuum, each feeding the other, and the joy of co-writing songs as part of songwriter retreats. She was also not above name-dropping her co-writing with Graham Gouldman of 10CC and the pride she felt when Elton John covered her in concert. Finally, she explains how her first label bio pushed her Texas birth and Alabama childhood without explaining this was because she was an Airforce brat who also lived in California, New England, and Germany.

What brings you to the UK?

Last week I was part of a fabulous group of songwriters in Somerset, something I’ve been doing for the last 5 years pre-pandemic, with Chris Difford’s songwriting extravaganza. It is really amazing, I tell my friends it is like getting to stay at Downton Abbey and waking up in the morning and getting up and writing with Graham Gouldman, haha. We write in groups of three, and every night we share what we wrote that day, it is like a think tank for songwriters, haha.

I spoke to Chris Difford about a year ago when he had a charity thing for the NHS, and it was clear he is extremely passionate about his songwriting events.

That’s right. He did amazing work during the pandemic, and I participated in a few of the Zoom calls and they were just fantastic. He would have like 300 people, and then he would have about 20 people, songwriters and artists, just playing a song. Chris Difford’s Help Musicians charity is amazing, and he is so generous with his time and his networking, and he can access the most amazing songwriters, it is so incredible.

You appear to bring the volume and speed of a Nashville Brill Building songwriter to the more artistic approach of someone like John Prine. How do you see your own songwriting?

You know it’s funny, I was talking about this earlier today and I’ve been influenced by so many different types of music, but I’m really just looking for great songs be it in jazz, or rock, or blues, or the stuff from the ‘30s and ‘40s or the avant-guarde, electronica or hip hop, and I like to try and write songs in different genres, sometimes more successfully than others, haha. To me, the song is just this beautiful art form and I’m constantly trying new things and jumping off ledges. I think of it as an ongoing practice, and it has definitely saved my life a couple of times, to write through it rather than some of the other options, haha.

You say you look for the song, but how would you define a good song?

A good song is one when people hear it they stop and get involved, oh and it is a story about this. I always tell my students they need to know the answer to this question when you get to the end of the song, who is talking to who, and what is the story. There are so many ways you can pull that off, a song can be very ethereal, or it can be a straight three chords and the truth country song, that is what is so amazing, the number of stylistic options. It is interesting living in Nashville with so many songwriters, and not just country songwriters, and there is this beautiful way that we just dovetail into different styles. When I wrote ‘This Kiss’ with Annie Roboff and Robin Lerner, we didn’t even have a country demo of that song because we thought it was a pop song so we pitched it to all the pop artists for about a year. Then Faith Hill was cutting an album, and she had just had a big hit, and Annie said let’s move it to guitars and put steel guitar on, but it is still a pop song with a country production, haha. Then there was this whole spin-off of other poppy country songs, and there were people who didn’t like that because they wanted it to be traditional. It is a rollercoaster ride, but I don’t care at all as long as it’s a good song, that is all I look for, haha.

You are a successful songwriter, and you have also maintained your career as a recording artist, why is performing important to you?

I sing them to write them and I sort of get attached to certain ones, and I find if I get out and perform and sing it really feeds my songwriting, and then if I’m touring, touring, touring and not songwriting then that is also out of balance, and one of them feeds the other. Writing songs makes me want to go sing, and singing makes me want to write more songs to sing, haha. It is a circular relationship, and I couldn’t imagine not being an artist. Back in my early days when I was in my twenties and thirties, I found performing very nerve wreaking and I was very nervous, and my first husband was very supportive and he used to get so frustrated with me. I would be playing at The Bluebird and you could tell I was really nervous, and he was like, why don’t you sing like you do at home, it is no big deal get over yourself. He passed away in ’94, and I remember one of the last conversations I had with him and he was like, I’m going to let you off the hook right now, and if you are not happy when you perform then just quit. He’d never said that to me before, and the very first time I performed after that I walked out on stage and I had no nerves at all, and I was like this is fun and I know how to do this. Somehow it just empowered me, and ever since then I’ve enjoyed it unless the sound really sucks, and then it is awful, haha.

 ‘Crazy Town’ is your 15th album,  is it just another Beth Nielsen Chapman album, or is it more unique?

It is kind of different to anything I’ve done, and I feel that every album I do is kind of a parameter I’m exploring. I loved working with Ray Kennedy, who has made great records for Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and I left it up to him, and I’m a total control-freak. I was like, you put the band together, I won’t have anything to do with that, and they were amazing. I enjoyed not having to pick musicians, and it was a great band and we had six days of recording and we cut seventeen tracks, so I have half of my next album in the can already. Then the pandemic hit almost right away and over the next couple of years finishing it depended on gaps in lockdowns, but most of the vocals are from when we cut those tracks over those six days. It had such great energy, and I kind of felt I grew up, in a good way, haha.

What did you learn about yourself through working with Ray Kennedy?

I learned I don’t need to hear my vocal and pay that much attention when I’m singing with a band. The funny thing is when I’m playing live I’m not listening to my vocal, I’m in the song, when I get into a recording studio I have all the options to redo it, and I want to get the vocal with a good energy, and I always have my vocal up loud. When I hear that and I’m thinking about what I’m doing and not fully blending in, I just sing differently, I’m careful. What happened was I didn’t have the vocal up as loud because Ray said don’t worry about it just get in the band and go for it like it is a live show, and I did. I’ve had people come up to me at my concerts and ask if I have anything recorded that sounds like the concert, haha, because I have so much fun on stage and I just let go, haha. It used to be no but now I do, it is ‘Crazy Town’. I did manage to capture the fun I have when I play live, and little did I know we were about to go straight into a pandemic otherwise I wouldn’t have been having quite as much fun. I’m so glad we managed to capture that before all the crazy stuff. The funny thing is, and this happens to me regularly when I put out an album, I will look back and see that I wrote songs before the things happened that the songs are about, it is just a weird thing. Again, with ‘Crazy Town’, many of the songs sound like they were written after the events of the last two years, but they were written before. You can get weirded out when you are writing a sad song that hasn’t happened yet, haha.

Be careful what you write, it just might come true, haha.

Exactly, haha. Only happy songs from now on.

Who came up with the title ‘Crazy Town’?

I wanted a one-word title, and there is a line in the last song on the album, which I wrote with Gabe Rhodes and Cooper Dickerson, both strapping youths but great musicians and great guitar players. We were in Lubbock and we were in a writing camp which is one of the Buddy Holly Foundation’s, and we were having so much fun we got kickstarted into this song, and the name of the song is ‘Everywhere We Go’ and it has this line in it, “This crazy town from coast to coast we walk the streets we dodge the ghosts no one’s home everywhere we go”. It is a crazy song, it is like literally going into a ghost town after a pandemic, haha. Little did we know how much we were writing for the future, and I’d never heard that phrase before “It’s crazy town”, and when that hit me it is perfect because it kind of sums up this record. There are some wild songs on the record, one ‘This Universe’ is just wacky, it sounds like ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’ on speed, haha. It has been a really fun record to do.

Are you going to record with Ray Kennedy again?

Definitely, Ray and I are not done. It was so funny because Ray and I are both talkative people, as you can probably tell, haha, and he has been coming over to our house for dinner for many years, and my husband has got into a few conversations with Ray where you go down the rabbit hole, and you are standing there still talking twenty hours later. When I said I think I’m going to have Ray do my record, and my husband just looked at me and said, “Are you sure you will get it done?”. Weirdly, we cut seventeen songs and I’ve never done that even with people who don’t talk very much. When Ray gets in there and starts rolling he is so very focused.

Did you just do as you were told during the recording?

Oh no, that’s not possible for me. I start off with saying you put the band together, and I was very happy with everything he did around that, and then it was just a matter of getting into the groove with those guys.  The bass player and drummer have played together on countless sessions and they were like one brain, they were connected and they would just do these really cool shifty little groovy things. I was like, have they just turned it into a shuffle, no it’s not really a shuffle it is more an underground shuffle. There were just very fantastic things that just happened because of the pairing of these musicians. I definitely get involved in ideas and stuff, and I felt very produced and really comfortable sitting back and being an artist, and I’ve co-produced or produced myself and I’ve had some really good experiences with other producers, but I felt it was really good for me to give Ray the reigns. If I didn’t like something, I definitely said something, and we were like, well OK, we won’t do that then, haha. He is very easy to work with.

Why do you enjoy writing with other songwriters?

I’ve got to work with some really great songwriters. The lead-off track, ‘All The Time In The World’, was written with Graham Gouldman of 10CC, and he is such a fantastic songwriter, not that I’m name-dropping, haha. And Gordon Kennedy, who tours a lot with Peter Frampton but who is also a great songwriter, and wrote for Eric Clapton, and a song ‘Mosaic’ for Ricky Skaggs, he is a great musician and his father is guitar great Jerry Kennedy so he grew up with all these fantastic musicians around him. One of my favourite people, and my best friend, Annie Roboff and I wrote the song ‘With Time’ which is the big ballad of the record, and it took seven years to finish. We were like, what is this song trying to be when it grows up, good God, it was the hardest lyric to write, it was a long time coming. The songs on this record just seemed to fall together, and I wrote many on these retreats where I’ve been with people I’ve just met. Every time I sit down with a writer it is never an accident, I think I wonder why we are in this room together, I just love it.

How much has your Texas upbringing influenced your songwriting?

I was born in Texas but I only lived there for about ten minutes, and then we moved to New England. It was funny when I first signed to Warner Brothers Records I was never going to be a country artist, I was a singer-songwriter and I was trying really hard to make sure they didn’t think I was country, and the first person who did a bio on me saw I was born in Texas and that I had lived quite a few years in Alabama through high school and stuff, so the first line of the bio was “Texas born, Alabama bred Beth Nielsen Chapman…”. I thought I’ll quit, I sound like, I don’t know, but it took me years to get rid of that bio, haha. I was an Airforce brat, so I was born in Texas but went all over the place, Germany, California, New England, and then we ended up in Alabama. My family has stayed there, but they are from all over the place originally, but I love it because I think all those places have influenced me in certain ways, and it is good to have a lot of input if you are going to be a songwriter. I haven’t lived in Texas, but I’m imprinted by Texas, so if I was ever around someone like Guy Clark I was yep I’m from Texas and I just pulled it right out, haha, when they were handing out the Texas Songwriting Awards I was like, yeah I was born in Texas.

You were elected to The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2016, what did that mean to you?

That was amazing. It felt so surreal and I started noticing writers who should have been in but weren’t, and I was like, how did I get in. Even now, I still don’t even understand it. There are some amazing songwriters and artists who aren’t already in the Hall of Fame. A year ago there was a new batch, and I was what, they weren’t already in there. So it was a really huge honour, it is the greatest honour I can imagine, having other songwriters offer that to me. The award is really beautiful, it is this hand holding a quill pen, it is lovely and the size of a real hand, and when I’m writing lyrics and working with someone and they are giving me a hard time about whether they like my stuff or not, I will just pick it up and suggest they just talk to the hand, haha.

Did the award change you in any way, did it give you more confidence?

I’m still pinching myself because it is like something I didn’t expect, maybe if I got lucky ten or fifteen years later. It has been a surprise and huge honour, I still have to remind myself I’m in The Hall of Fame, I don’t remember to toss that around as often as I maybe should, I should get some t-shirts made, Hall of Famer, haha. Texas born, Alabama bred, haha. I’m going to have to be careful this conversation doesn’t come back and haunt me, haha.

If I pushed you, what would you say was your favourite cover version of one of your songs?

When Elton John sang ‘Sand and Water’ that was as good as a cover gets. I still don’t believe that actually happened, and to have him call me on the phone and ask whether I would mind if he plays my song instead of ‘Candle In The Wind’ to honour Princess Diana, and I’m like, really, who is doing this, haha. To be able to go see his band perform and to hear him make it his own was just incredible, he didn’t actually put it on a record but just to have that experience of hearing him bring it to life that way and perform it was enough. I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky, there was an obscure version of a song called ‘Fair Enough’ that is an incredibly fast salsa tune. The original version is a song off my ‘Sand and Water’ album and is a bossa nova, it has a very Sade kind of vibe, and their salsa version is incredible. If you can find it, check it out, it is mind-boggling, it just takes the top of your head off it is so fast. If they’d slowed it down a little it may have been a bit better, but it is really cool.

What can we expect from a Beth Nielsen Chapman gig in 2022?

We are going to have so much fun. There is an artist I’ve been friends with for a couple of years, Scott Mulvahill, and he is a brilliant musician and he is going to open for me. I’ve also roped him into playing in my band so it’s a win-win. He is just fantastic, for six years he played in Ricky Skaggs’ bluegrass band Kentucky Thunder, and you have to have some chops for that, and he plays upright bass and everything. He plays piano, and electric guitar, I just wish he was an octopus and I could save some money on the road, haha. I’ve toured a lot with a young woman, Ruth Trimble, from Northern Ireland and she is fantastic, and she is also a multi-instrumentalist and a great songwriter. Then there is a young girl, she is 17 and her name is Mia Morris and I saw her performing in Nashville at a songwriters convention. She is also a multi-instrumentalist and she reminds me of a young Taylor Swift, she is that talented, and she is going to play drums. They all play everything, so we will probably have some fun, it is going to be a fun show.

How did you cope during the pandemic with not being able to tour?

I really missed touring and I didn’t realise how much until I went out and did a few shows. It was a very difficult time for me, my husband was going through some treatment for leukaemia, he was actually having a stem-cell transplant and I couldn’t even go and see him in the hospital in case one of us caught COVID. It has been so terrible on so many levels for so many people, and I tried to use the time to do things I would never normally have time to do, do some writing, and some deep reflection, and maybe get to some parts of my house that never get taken care of, haha. I have two little grandchildren, one is 8 and the other is 2, so keeping them safe was a big part of our focus. Everything is good, everybody is safe and well, and hopefully we are on the other side of this thing and we are not going to have to go back.

What have Cooking Vinyl brought to your new record?

They have made a difference to the whole way I have put the record out. They have a fantastic staff to work with, it has been much more coordinated because previously when I was in charge of doing everything I wouldn’t have hired me, haha. I would hire me to write a song but not to do the other stuff. I have this wonderful coordinated approach from my manager, Trudy Myerscough-Harris, who is quarterbacking but she has a team. It has just been fantastic so far, and we have a wonderful PR team, and it feels like a lot of fun and excitement. We are excited to come back in October and do this big tour, and we will be putting a couple of singles out so I can’t complain, they have been great.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I have been listening to Scott Mulvahill’s last album because there are some great songs on it. My little grandson has been insisting we listen to ‘Hamilton’ every time we get in the car, and then there is Bonnie Raitt’s new album. She is a friend of mine, and there are songs on there she wrote by herself that are just masterful, and the title cut, ‘Just Like That’, is about a person who knocks on the door of a woman whose son got killed in a car accident, and her son’s heart was put into this person and they track her down to say thank you to her. I’m botching it up trying to describe it to you, but this whole song is a movie, this person says do you want to put your head on my chest and hear your son’s heart, and it is just incredible, such brave and deep writing. I’m just blown away by her new record. She will sit there and say she is not really a songwriter, and I’m, sorry, you can’t say that in my presence anymore, that is not OK, haha.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

Please buy the album and pre-order it, and all that stuff, haha. It does really help those of us who are independent artists. I just feel such a connection with the people who live here, and I’m so grateful to have this place to come back to, and I’ve missed it tremendously, and I’m just so relieved because we had to move the tour three times so it is definitely going to happen in October. Just to be able to come back over after being with all the songwriters on Chris Difford’s retreat in Pennard House in Somerset I feel that life is slowly getting back on track. You know, when it has been taken away you are able to appreciate it on a much higher level even though I think, collectively, all the people are going to have to work through tremendous grief because of what we have just gone through, it is not going to be just about getting back to normal. In addition to the grief we have to process, I think there is an incredible appreciation for some of the simplest things we take for granted, like getting to walk out on stage with people and play for people in three dimensions. That simple thing is like like, wow I’ve won the lottery. We are still limping out, there are a lot of layers to this thing.

Beth Nielsen Chapman’s ‘Crazy Town’ is released on 23 September through Cooking Vinyl Records.

About Martin Johnson 392 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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